Project managers are often thought of as professional multitaskers, juggling multiple priorities and customers – for Lillian Zien though, project management means mostly three things: email, meetings, and email.
She’s what you could call a professional email processor. On any given day, Lillian receives well over 100 emails that all require her attention. Even if she only gives each email a minute of her time, she’s spending a quarter of her day simply sorting through her inbox. Without a system to help her manage this, it would be impossible to get any actual work done!
Lillian has been a senior project manager for GreenSoft Technology for over ten years, helping global businesses comply with international environmental regulations. Working remotely from the US, she manages a team spread around the world but mostly based in China.
When you start your day with 100 unread emails sitting on your inbox, improvising a routine or methodology is not an option. Instead, it’s crucial to follow a system that works for you so that you can be productive and not feel overwhelmed seeing your emails pile up.
We talked to her about her workflow and how she manages her daily boatload of emails to stay focused.
1. Get support from your team to make sorting out emails easier
How does Lillian manage to give the right amount of attention to every email without letting anything go by? Effective team communication is a good start. Lillian has developed a system with her team: “My PM assistants and engineers are asked to indicate in the title whether an email is just FYI or if my input is needed.” With this, she can then quickly sort through email to know what can wait or what needs her feedback. A typical email subject might look like this:
[Customer X] FYI: New supplier added to the list
[Customer X] Approval needed: Proof of Compliance from supplier
2. Don’t let emails pile up and classify them right away
You know that feeling of looking at an important email briefly, thinking, “I’ll deal with this in a bit” and then rediscover it two days later buried under a ton of other, less urgent, emails? Don’t let this happen to you.
Lillian separates emails that need her input from those that don’t so that, ideally, she touches each email only once. “I will browse through my inbox first thing in the morning for anything urgent that can be addressed quickly or anything pertaining to meetings I have that day. For the rest of the emails, I tend to go through them and file away the FYIs and forward other information onto my team for them to do the processing.”
Prioritization is crucial to prevent any delay in a project. That’s why she will focus on emails that require her to take action before reading the “FYI” emails which can usually wait and can be processed much faster. Once she has finished with an email, she’ll classify the email in folders.
3. Set a specific time to deal with emails that require more attention
Look at your calendar – what time of the day are you most effective? When are you most energetic versus when do you feel a little more mentally tired? We all have a time of the day that’s best for certain tasks.
Use the time when you’re more productive wisely. Schedule in time for tasks that require deep focus, and leave other times of the day available for less intense or demanding tasks. Lillian gives a ⭐ to emails that require more time to respond or need additional research and leave them for the afternoon when she’s free from meetings. Those remain in her inbox until she has worked with them, then she’ll put them in the right folder.
Lillian also adds any emails that need to be responded to by a certain date to her calendar so they don't get lost in the shuffle. Since her team works in a different time zone she likes to check her email again in the evening for any urgent requests for her input. That means her team is able to continue working and doesn’t have to wait until the next day.
4. More than one paragraph? Then it’s time to pick up the phone
The eternal question – phone or email? Lillian has one rule of thumb when it comes to choosing emails over picking up the phone. If she needs to talk about something and it’s going to take more than one paragraph to explain, she’ll pick up the phone and discuss it directly with her customer. Then she’ll document the call.
She specifically sends out emails when it’s something that needs to be documented, for example, anything related to contractual terms. If her customer has a question that needs an explanation, she prefers to talk to the client.
This has two benefits: it takes less time to talk about something that requires back and forth. Picking up the phone reduces the amount of back and forth needed, so no-one becomes a roadblock. But picking up the phone also prevents Lillian from getting even more emails to process later in the day.
How to manage emails efficiently? Organize, organize, organize
Having too many emails is the modern office’s disease. Even if we might not realize it, it can be easy to spend all day dealing with email, which can take a toll if you have other things on your plate.
That’s why it’s crucial to have a system in place that helps you process emails in a way that is effective. Things like standardizing the subjects you use for each type of email with your team, using tags and folders, and picking up the phone when the occasion calls for it can help you do just that.
Written by Sarah Chambers
Originally Published: 17 July 2020